On the surface, this is just a piece about entertainment. And basically it is. But I also think it deals with a major news story -- actually, the major news story today, the attack on Israel -- and how people grab onto a false narrative because it's what you want to be true. Even though, at heart, this is just about a song.
A couple days ago, I got a text message from reader (and Camp Nebagamon camper when I was a counselor) Bill Guthman who'd come across an article online about the writing of the song, "Over the Rainbow," and how -- supposedly -- the underlying meaning of the song is that it was written about Israel as the homeland for Jews.
This didn't seem right to Bill, so he wrote me to find out what I might know about it. This is part of the article in question.
Did you know that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was written, not about the mythical Land of Oz, but the homeland of the Jews - Israel?
Honestly, and I say this not knowing much about the history behind the writing of the song, though knowing about writing and writing song lyrics, I don't even remotely believe the song is "about" Israel. I do understand why many would want to believe it so, most especially now -- and a great many of the readers comments clearly did believe it. But wanting to believe something is true doesn't change it from being a false narrative, no matter how noble the wish.
It reminds me -- from a less noble perspective -- when there was an effort to show that the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" was about cocaine and drug use. At least in that case, nuts as it was, the original article about (in a Newsweek cover story, of all things) that used what purported to be supposed "evidence," dissecting the lyrics. Here, though the guy just basically says "Their family were Jewish immigrants, so this must be about Israel."
That said, I'm sure -- like all writers/ songwriters E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (who was very openly radical left) looked for inspiration to help add impact to his words and might possibly have used a homeland for Jews to add a source of inspiration to perhaps part of his thinking. Perhaps. Maybe. But --
The songs for The Wizard of Oz were written in 1938. Though there had long been efforts to create a Jewish homeland, it seems inappropriate to overlay today's political awareness of "the Holocaust to come" (which wouldn't begin to reach the public for three years) on the meaning of the song. Further, and importantly, they were writing a song to fit the very specific plot point of a story about a girl unhappy with her bland, black-and-white life who is about to go to a magical, Technicolor world in the sky! So...of course that's what the song is (and must be) about. Whether the idea of an Israel homeland helped add a touch of texture to that, who knows? Perhaps. But again, the suggestion in the article is not about a touch of texture, but that "Over the Rainbow" is actually and specifically "about" the birth of Israel.
Also, many, if not most Broadway songwriters of the time were Jewish and likely had similar backgrounds. (For starters, Irving Berlin, whose real name was Israel Beilin, and whose family emigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 1983.) So, the fact that Harburg and Arlen’s families were immigrant Jews (!!) is borderline meaningless.
Moreover, I've posted a video on my website of Harburg talking about the song and him singing it – which is maybe the most moving version of the song I've seen -- and he talks of the song being about wanting to make "a better world, a rainbow world" which fits far more into his personal politics of having been a blacklisted, lifelong socialist. So many of his lyrics were about social conditions. Like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” Consider, too, many of his lyrics in the musical Finian's Rainbow (which for all its fantasy about leprechauns is highly political) like “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” “On That Great Come and Get It Day,” and, of course, another rainbow song, “Look to the Rainbow.” Rainbows -- a mixture of colors blended together -- are clearly important to Harburg. For his Broadway musical Flahooley, the story is fully, blatantly political, notably relating to Harburg's own blacklisted, socialist life, even though on the thin surface is merely about toys. (It deals with a genie misunderstanding a wish and giving away a company's top-selling toy, which infuriates capitalist forces who then start a witch hunt and attempt to destroy all the free toys.)
That’s the political, social “better world” Harburg wrote about so often, and directly in "Over the Rainbow." (In fairness, he wrote a lot of whimsy, too, like "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" for the Marx Bros.) But here's that video where he talks about it, says what it means. He's not whimsically wondering about things, but Really Wants to Know, with all his heart, if birds can fly, why then can't he??! It's so meaningful and moving to Harburg that, even though he must have sung this hundreds if not thousands of times, he's in tears at the end.
And further still, and importantly, after reading David McCullough's 2015 biography on the Wright Brothers, I made a discovery that at least one very famous passage from “Over the Rainbow” (those words about how if bluebirds can fly over the rainbow, why can’t I?) is surprisingly very likely related, at least in a tangential way to that -- a famous poem from Harburg's childhood and man now being able to fly! Rather than relay the whole story here, this a link to the piece I wrote about it.
So, while it’s certainly possible that thoughts of a Jewish homeland helped color Yip Harburg’s great-many ideas worked into the song, to state without evidence an unsubstantiated presumption that the song is “about” Israel seems to be very unlikely.
Though the goal in this case about "Over the Rainbow" (declaring that it's "about" a Jewish homeland) was well-meaning these days, it was still -- I'm near 100% certain -- wrong. If people want to take a song and interpret it to have deep meaning for themselves as a sort of anthem, that's another matter entirely and completely valid. But to create a false narrative is never good to take as fact and pass along as fact.
Three weeks back, I wrote here about the devastating Lahaina fire on Maui and having traveled there several decades ago with deeply fond memories. The town, I said, "had a sense of the past and world culture that seemed to be living all around you." I particularly singled out the Pioneer Inn, where I stayed and remembered with great affection, all the more so since it was destroyed in the fire.
"But most of all, I loved staying at the Pioneer Inn. It permeated the Old World with simplicity and warmth, and I soaked it all up, reveling in knowing not only how it fit into the whaling past, but that people like Mark Twain had stayed there. Its wood structure painted white, with wonderful wood slats in the windows, and a Polynesian sensibility crossed with New England sturdiness."
I had such fondness for the Pioneer Inn that I'd kept matchbook keepsake from my time there, and embedded photos of it. I had wanted to post a photo of the place itself, but didn't think I had access to a photo I'd taken of the Pioneer Inn -- but happily I was able to find it.
I've added it in the originally article. And as an homage, since I figure most people here aren't going to be going back to read it, I include it below
On this date 9 years ago, August 28, 2014, the Republican Party went bat-dung crazy because President Barack Obama wore a tan suit.
The good news is that at least we know what the GOP will get upset over with a president.
It's not two impeachments, including for trying to shakedown a foreign leader and promoting a riot against the U.S. government.
It's not being found liable for committing what the trial judge wrote was the equivalence of rape.
It's not creating plans to stage a coup against democracy in order to overthrow the government.
It's not fomenting an Insurrection where rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol, threatened the lives of the members of Congress, attacked the police and built a hangman's noose for vice president Mike Pence.
It's not taking government documents, refusing to return them, hiding them from a government subpoena, leaving classified material out in the open and showing war plans to people without clearance.
It's not interfering with state government to get them to commit election fraud.
It's not having your charity foundation shut down for a having "shocking pattern of illegality."
It's none of that and more. But it's comforting to know that despite knowing that not any of that upsets Republicans in Congress when it comes to the actions of a president, there is something that will upset Republicans, sworn to protect, preserve and defend the United States Constitution.
It's a black man standing at the White House podium in a tan suit.
(For the record: I did not come up with the phrase that I used for the headline above. It was too wonderful not to use, but I don't want to take credit for it. It was from some commentator I saw on a montage about the Republican derangement over the suit.)
I don’t have much to add about the excruciating disaster in Lahaina that even touches close to the reporting and video footage, and I can’t put my reaction anywhere in the universe of those whose lives are part of the community. This is not intended to. But that I feel as heart-sick as I do from just two trips to Hawaii, with one visit to Lahaina, speaks to how overwhelming and almost indescribable this conflagration is.
I’ve mentioned in the past that my friend Peter Carlisle was Chief Prosecuting Attorney of Honolulu for about 17 years, and served as Mayor there. And I have good friends from Hawaii. So, my appreciation of their deep love of the state and its history from all our talks over the decades has them as its foundation.
On one of the trips, I went to Maui and drove to Lahaina to spend a couple days. I didn’t know much about the town, but read up on it, and loved his whaling history. Lahaina has a wonderful, sweet charm that was different from the grace of the rest of the state. It had a sense of the past and world culture that seemed to be living all around you. But most of all, I loved staying at the Pioneer Inn. It permeated the Old World with simplicity and warmth, and I soaked it all up, reveling in knowing not only how it fit into the whaling past, but that people like Mark Twain had stayed there. Its wood structure painted white, with wonderful wood slats in the windows, and a Polynesian sensibility crossed with New England sturdiness.
(When I initially posted this article, I didn't think I had a photo I'd taken of the Pioneer Inn, but happily I was able to find it.)
In fact, although the trip to Lahaina may have been 35-40 years ago, I had such a strong appreciation of the Pioneer Inn that even after all those years I have still kept a souvenir of the hotel to maintain a connection.
Though a small souvenir, but it's brought great memories, a match book.
In the back of my mind, I had thoughts of returning to the Pioneer Inn. But the moment I heard there was a fire crushing Lahaina, I know the hotel was gone. And likely the town. When I’ve thought of the Pioneer Inn over the years, I thought of “wood.” And the town had that feel, as well. It wasn’t going to stand against roaring flames. Lahaina would be a place for memory.
And that’s what Lahaina is now. Heart-sickening is the only word for me to describe it, and that doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.
It’s not just that everything has disappeared, and that emergency relief will be so difficult for people there to access. But once they do, once they get their FEMA support, once they get their government assistance, once they get their insurance – there’s no Lahaina there to go back to. It’s gone.
(There is also one other sickening aspect to this disaster. It’s all the delusional, empty people who point to this soul-crushing loss and try desperately to say “Wait, this wasn’t a natural disaster at all. Look at this photo and that shaft of light. This was from aliens.” Lahaina was a community about the natural world. Nature was at its core. And the winds and heat and flames that tragically came together in the changed climate world we live in today sadly become a part of that history. Those who try to make it about something conspiratorially phantasmagoric not only demean themselves, but spit on the lives of all those who have lived in Lahaina over the centuries. Happily, they missed by a lot.)
People will return. Lahaina will be rebuilt. Chicago burned down in flames, and returned to become one of the great cities of the world. And there will be a thriving Lahaina. At some point. But Lahaina is different, Lahaina was about history. And those structures are no more. Those museums are no more. But at least the thing about history is that it’s always there where it was. So, while the Lahaina that returns will be new and different, there will be in its spirit the Lahaina that always was and will always be. That may not be enough in many ways. But it’s something. And it’s important.
For those who like to look at the calendar for such things, today is the 79th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. I thought it would therefore be especially appropriate to post this video. It's the wonderful theme to the movie, The Longest Day, sung and performed most appropriately by the Cadet Glee Club of West Point, along with military band.
I first posted this video five years ago in 2017. It’s my favorite one on the subject – not just for the performance, but for how movingly the video is edited. It's particularly well-done, beginning with a minute of General Dwight Eisenhower's message to the troops before the invasion began, and interspersed with some excellent photos and archival film from the day, amid the soaring music.
By the way, the timpani you hear before the song begins is not only recognizable as the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but more to the point, it's the Morse Code for “V” for Victory.
Also, in case you weren't aware, the main theme for The Longest Day, used throughout the film not just in the end titles, was written by pop-star heartthrob at the time, Paul Anka.
I will only add that today commemorates when the United States and democracies around the world came together to fight and defeat Nazis and fascism.
Ben Franklin was born on this day, January 17, in 1706. And as I like to do to celebrate, I thought I'd post a few songs with the good fellow from a couple of Broadway musicals. Yes, a couple -- there are two musicals I know of that feature Benjamin Franklin, which is probably two more than most people would have guessed for a very long time.
While I'm certain that 1776 comes first to mind for most people, instead we're going to start with another. It's a show that opened in October, 1964, called Ben Franklin in Paris. And it had an impressive lead -- Robert Preston, in his first musical since The Music Man. It had music and lyrics by a fellow named Sidney Michaels and also starred Ulla Sallert. The show didn't have a long run, though did play for 215 performances, which is half a year.
I'm not bowled over by the score, but it does have a few nice things in it. And happily, my favorite song even has video of it when the cast appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and performed the song and the scene that leads into it. This is "Half the Battle."
The other song, "Look for Small Pleasures," is quite nice, in a small, charming way. In fact, it even had a bit of life outside the show and was recorded by several people, with moderate success.
And of course we have to follow that up with something from 1776, with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. So, here then is "The Egg."
And...oh, okay, let's throw in an offbeat bonus. No, it's not a musical about Ben Franklin, but how can we end a celebration of the good fellow without this song from Mary Poppins?!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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